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The last shuttle for innovation


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    The Rotating Service Structure swings back to reveal the space shuttle Atlantis as it stands on launch pad 39A one day before its scheduled launch at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    Members of the media and spectators line the shore of a lake at dawn as they watch space shuttle Atlantis on the launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center.

    - Win McNamee/Getty Images

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    Space shuttle Atlantis sits on the launchpad at dawn at the Kennedy Space Center.

    - Win McNamee/Getty Images

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    Specatators line the shore of a lake at dawn as they watch space shuttle Atlantis on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

    - Win McNamee/Getty Images

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    Space shuttle Atlantis sits on the launchpad at dawn as the countdown clock holds at three hours at the Kennedy Space Center.

    - Win McNamee/Getty Images

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    Alice Jensen, on vacation from Denmark, wears rain gear as she walks past a model of a space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

    - Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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    Space shuttle Atlantis stands on launch pad 39A one day before its scheduled launch at Kennedy Space Center.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    A umbrella is held to hide from the rain while the space shuttle Atlantis rotating service structure is rolled back at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

    - JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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    David Ramsey, from Houston, Texas, writes a message on a poster that reads, 'Best Wishes Atlantis,' at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex one day before Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch.

    - Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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    The space shuttle Atlantisis seen as the rotating service structure is rolled back at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

    - JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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    A sign reading, 'God Speed Atlantis'' is seen through a rain soaked window as people wait for the launch of Space shuttle Atlantis on the last mission of the space shuttle program.

    - Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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    People gather near launch pad 39A to photograph and be photographed with the space shuttle Atlantis one day before its scheduled launch at Kennedy Space Center.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    NASA volunteer Robert White makes photographs of space shuttle Atlantis as it stands on launch pad 39A one day before its scheduled launch.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    The U.S. space shuttle Atlantis sits on Launch Pad 39A.

    - DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

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    Rayelle McMann, 4, on vacation from Toronto, Canada with her family, plays with a space shuttle toy in a puddle at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex one day before Space shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to launch for the last mission of the space shuttle program.

    - Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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    People gather near launch pad 39A to photograph and be photographed with the space shuttle Atlantis.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    Hundreds of people gather near launch pad 39A to photograph and be photographed with the space shuttle Atlantis.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    Space shuttle Atlantis stands on launch pad 39A.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    Space Shuttle Atlantis Astronauts, Mission Specialists Rex Walheim, Sandra Magnus, Pilot Doug Hurley, and Commander Chris Ferguson walkout from the Operations and Checkout Building into the Astrovan in preparation for the countdown in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

    - Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images

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    Larry Moore of McRae Art Studios in Orlando, Florida, works on a painting of the space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 at the press site at Kennedy Space Center two hours before the shuttle's launch.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    A Japanese journalist hangs a sign for the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 the NASA Operations and Checkout building hours before their scheduled launch at Kennedy Space Center.

    - Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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    Crew of the space shuttle Atlantis walk out before heading to the launch pad.

    - STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images

JEREMY HOBSON: In a matter of hours -- assuming the weather cooperates -- Americans will get one last look a space shuttle launch. NASA's 30 year shuttle program is coming to an end with the launch of Atlantis. And the program's conclusion has launched another debate about America's role as a high-tech and innovation leader and the long-term viability of the knowledge economy.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Scott Tong reports.


SCOTT TONG: Atlantis will haul three men, one woman, 30 mice. Amgen is testing a bone loss therapy -- on rodents free of earthly possessions, like gravity. It may yield a medicine someday, and it turns out the shuttle program has spawned many innovations: artificial heart pumps, better insulation, a golf ball with distance.

Dan Lockney works for NASA's chief technologist.

DAN LOCKNEY: We've been out-innovating, you know, got to the moon first. We've been out-building, we've got some of greatest supercomputers and largest wind tunnels. Take a look at the space station, we're ready to take up that call.

It's a long list of breakthroughs. Still...

HOWARD MCCURDY: I think the list would be longer if the shuttle was able to fly more frequently.

Howard McCurdy at American University says the shuttle was meant to fly often, like the old airline shuttles -- just clean the ashtrays and go up again. But the spacecraft proved too fragile, denting the visions of the 1980s, like:

MCCURDY: Oh, we're going to have these big large solar arrays in orbit. And we're going to have these huge platforms that will monitor the earth. Those technological innovations were lost as a result of the infrequencies of flights.

Future space travel may open to NASA competitors like China and private companies. Makes sense, says Josh Lerner at Harvard Business School.

JOSH LERNER: Think about the Internet and biotechnology, where the only venture capitalist in town was the federal government. And over time we saw the private sector pick up the activity.

Many say the key is the "picking up" -- that NASA's big shuttle bet is followed up. By private and public investments in high-risk, shoot-the-moon science and technology.

In Washington I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

Video clips at Ustream

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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